I recently read a blog post from John Pavlovitz who writes “An Honest, Tired, and Struggling Apostles’ Creed.” I appreciated his honesty, his words, and his willingness to wrestle with faith. Reading it prompted me to think about what the Creeds mean to and for me.
I grew up as a non-creedal Baptist where there was no such thing as a creed (though there was a curious thing called the Baptist Church Covenant which I remember being prominently displayed in the narthex of my childhood church…though, I must confess, I never read it until after I had left the church). This has a lot do with the fact that Baptists look to scripture alone as their guide for faith. It is no wonder that many people thought I had “lost my mind” when I “swam the Thames” and became an Anglican, a more liturgical and historic church whose three-legged guide to faith specifically includes apostolic tradition and intellectual reason as well as biblical scripture. To some it seemed less-enlightened to search through to the words of the Church Fathers or to enter a faith with pre-scripted words. For me it was an invitation to rest.
I vividly remember the sermon preached the day I walked into St. Martin’s Episcopal Church (though I cannot remember who gave the sermon). It was a sermon that saved my faith. The priest spoke about Sabbath rest, about God’s invitation for us to take a break from our weary wandering and enter God’s presence to simply rest. That deeply resonated with me in the moment because I had expended a lot of spiritual energy in the preceding years trying to make sense of faith and identity and I was simply exhausted. I was happy to have words given to me because I was too tired to find them for myself. Far from being an imposition, the Creeds (specifically in that moment the Nicene Creed) and liturgy were a deep well of faith from which I needed to drink.
One of the biggest questions I get from visitors who are interested in joining our parish is the question about the Creeds – what does it mean to “believe?” More specifically, “do I have to believe the whole Creed?” What most people are afraid of is their inability to rationalize the poetry of the Creeds with their experience or knowledge. It is my esteemed pleasure as a catechist, a teacher of the faith, to share with people that the word “believe” doesn’t mean what we think it does. In the language of faith, “I believe” doesn’t mean “I know as fact.” The word “believe” is a translation of the Latin word “Credo” (cor + dare = heart + to give) which means “I give my heart to.” To “believe in” something, from a faith perspective, it to give our heart to it. To people who need quick and easy answers, this is a hard pill to swallow because “I believe” doesn’t tie things in neat bows. It leaves the edges of our hearts exposed to a God who is constantly revealing God’s self in new ways. Real belief allows that which we believe in to seep into the fortressed places in our hearts and to leaven the lump of our souls. Contrary to conventional wisdom, belief is openness, not closedness. Faithful belief is not a hermetic seal preventing us from being influenced by those on the outside; rather, it is an invitation to be changed in unexpected ways and from unexpected places. It’s active, not static. You can’t believe in something unless you are willing to allow that which you believe in to upset all your previously held assumptions about everything, even that which you believe in itself.
I have the pleasure of speaking with new members of our parish often and one of the unifying themes of their journeys is the need for rest. Many of them departed evangelical churches which may have given them “easy answers,” but caused them spend a lot of energy trying to make those answer “make sense” and simply couldn’t. Others left the Roman Church which, while maintaining the poetry of liturgy and the ancient Creeds, often compresses its language into prose – making it more about fact and dogma than faith and conversion.
People often come through our red church doors tired and on the last legs of their faith.
And it strikes me that the Creeds are the antidote to those weary travelers looking to rest in God.
I can say “I believe” because the Creeds are more than about my faith. The Creeds speak to the faith of the Church catholic. It’s not about me. It’s bigger than me That is really good news for me in days where I am especially tired or empty, because I am still invited into the words of faith and invited to be carried by the faith of the communion of saints, both those gathered and those who have gone on before. The Creeds cradle us, they do not confine us.
I can say “I believe” because the Creeds let me know that I don’t have to do all the work of faith. There are faithful women and men who have come before me, closer to God than I, who have done some of that work for me and have given me this great gift of faith to empower me when I feel insufficient or weak.
I can say (though I’d rather sing) “I believe” without my fingers crossed because when confronted by the salvation song of a God who creatively broods over deep waters, continues to imagine and create new worlds, triumphs over oppressive systems, calls us into community, and then chooses to enter that community to lovingly draw us to Himself, what else can I do but to give my heart away in response?
The Creeds follow the reading of scripture and the sermon, not to correct whatever heresy may have been spoken in the sermon, but as a faithful response to the Word of God that has just confronted our strongholds. It is our “Altar Call” or our “Invitation to Christian Discipleship.” When we stand to say (or sing) the Creeds, even if we “fake it to make it,” we are opening ourselves to God who desires to overthrow our hearts with Her love.
Why believe? Because God’s perfect love doesn’t ask for a perfect response. God merely asks for us to offer ourselves as a living sacrifice and to allow ourselves to be sanctified, to be changed, from faith to faith and from glory to glory.
I believe, because giving my heart away to God, just as I am, is the very least that I can do, and for God it is good enough.